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Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 25, September 10 - 16

Restaurant Guide

Hotline 1950
Kitsch! Schlock! Visual chaos! Average Food! BEER
by Hu Yue

Just east of the 21st Century Theater, on the north side of Liangmaqiao Road, yet another fungoid-like strip of Sanlitun-grade bars has risen from the marshes to serve the needs of Beijing's cultural elite. Its crown jewel is Hotline 1950, a schlock-filled, kitschy, TGIF rip-off that outdoes TGIF in tackiness and underdoes it in food and service.

In its pre-emptive defense, Hotline 1950 (which has naught to do with any sort of hotline or the year 1950) features a smoke-enshrouded pool table on its mezzanine, a long bar with two large TV screens (for sports and government meeting updates), and is so full of tchotchkes and retro-Americana paraphernalia that it's almost begging for a vigorous barfight.

But in order to describe the experience of dining at Hotline 1950 in a fair and unbiased manner, I think it would be appropriate to recount the last time I visited Los Angeles.

I was seated in a white Volkswagen with Kim, a beautiful art historian on vacation from New York. After a romantic first date-featuring a sunset walk on Redondo beach, where we excavated a washed-up Punching Nun doll entangled in a desiccated jellyfish-we drove back to her friend's apartment in a well-heeled section of LA and parked.

Soft moonlight reflected finger-like silhouettes through the leaves of the tall palm trees above. A slight breeze coaxed a mellow fragrance from a nearby stand of eucalyptus. While Kim inhaled tobacco-flavored carcinogens through a plastic filter, I tried to impress her by falsely claiming I'd read Sartre in Serbo-Croatian and discovered that existentialism sounds like a load of bull in a proper Slavic dialect.

But, alas, the best-laid plans of mice and men don't always pan out. First of all, mice don't make plans, because they have very tiny brains, essentially limited to basic motor functions, appetite and reproduction. Second, men do make plans, but since they have big brains with vast regions of unused gray matter, their plans tend to get misplaced and overridden by other more pressing concerns, like basic motor functions, appetite and reproduction.

Sure enough, halfway through Kim's cigarette, a nice, enterprising young man with a .38 caliber revolver approached the car and invited us to hand over all of our cash, credit cards and jewelry. I thought it sounded like a good idea.

With the barrel of his gun just two inches off the west coast of my left nostril and a glazed Sartrean expression in his eyes, it sounded like a damn good idea.

Kim, unfortunately, was carrying a lot of cash and initially resisted the suggestion, thinking it might be fun to bargain with our new friend, while I quietly had an aneurysm and nearly relieved myself on the stick shift. As soon as the Second Amendment activist took our money and ran, we got out of the neighborhood and sought refuge at the house of my friend Dave, a Starbucks roastmaster who served two tours as an infantryman in the Vietnam War. When we told him what happened, he made us feel better about the whole thing, saying, "Oh, that's nothing. Over in 'Nam, people used to shoot at us everyday. You eventually get used to it."

Needless to say, things worked out for the best. The mugger didn't shoot us or something worse-like steal my car-and a mild case of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder made for a good conversation piece as Kim and I literally shook and stuttered for the next few days. All of which is to say that part of the pleasure of eating western food in a Beijing bar is that, unlike the streets of LA, you can enjoy non-stop Zhang Huimei videos on multiple monitors and mugs of warm, flat, sour-smelling Beijing draft while you're being robbed.

At Hotline 1950, the culinary grand larceny begins with the Caesar Salad: nine pathetic little scraps of soggy iceberg lettuce, bacon bits, watered-down dressing, midget croutons, and a layer of parmesan cheese that appears to have been stored in a mattress in the basement of the National Fungus Research Institute for the better part of a decade. In other words, another rmb 25 that would have been better spent on a pirated VCD. And like the old adage about life, not only does it completely suck, but you get far too little of it.

Brian, our token extreme vegan cult member, orders the mushroom soup, which he can't finish, because the cup is so small his spoon gets stuck on the bottom and has to be removed by smashing the cup with polo mallets. Unfortunately, Brian's back-swing arcs too high and dislodges the nine-foot fake marlin skewered to the wall above us, nearly impaling our staff dessert expert Chris Pan-who, by dumb luck, has just attached an impenetrable piece of garlic bread to her ear, harmlessly deflecting the dangerous fish into the mezzanine level, where it joins an ongoing card game and bums a cigarette, insisting with no small amount of denial, "I'm just a recreational smoker."

When asked about his medium-rare rmb 65 "T-bone" steak-Hotline 1950's péice de résistance-beef connoisseur Ben Davidson responds with typical South African candor, "The T-bone tastes like a Donkey Meat King jiaozi restaurant by-product."

To be fair, with its skinny French fries, tall French doors, beers, decent milkshakes (coffee, chocolate, and strawberry), large patio space, and marginally attentive service, Hotline 1950 is a nice big dive in which to hang out with friends and get loud. The limited selection of mediocre burgers, sandwiches, pastas and snacks shouldn't discourage you from giving this new bar a shot. It's not quite as fun as being mugged with a beautiful art historian under a row of moonlit palm trees, but it's close enough for Beijing.

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